I received the following article and do not know who wrote it, but it’s worthwhile. I’m using it to prepare to listen to the sound of the Shofar: It’s high summer and we’re all out there seeing each other. We’re not |
hidden away in our homes and offices as we are in winter’s cold. We’re part
of a crowd—on the street, in the park, on the boardwalk, on the top deck of
the ferry to Saltaire. And we can see in some new or clearer ways how
technology is changing us.
For one thing, it is changing our posture. People who used to walk along the
avenues of New York staring alertly ahead, or looking up, now walk along
with their heads down, shoulders slumped, checking their email and text
messages. They’re not watching where they’re going, and frequently bump into
each other. I’m told this is called a BlackBerry jam.
A lot of people seem here but not here. They’re pecking away on a piece of
plastic; they’ve withdrawn from the immediate reality around them and set up
temporary camp in a reality that exists in their heads. It involves their
own music, their own conversation, whether written or oral. This contributes
to the new obliviousness, to the young woman who steps off the curb unaware
the police car with blaring siren is barreling down the street.
In the street café, as soon as they’ve ordered, people scroll down for their
email. Everyone who constantly checks is looking for different things. They
are looking for connection, information. They are attempting to alleviate
anxiety: “If I know what’s going on I can master it.” They are making plans.
But mostly, one way or another, I think they are looking for a love pellet.
*I thought of you. How are you? This will make you laugh. Don’t break this
chain. FYI, because you’re part of the team, the endeavor, the group, my
life. Meet your new nephew—here’s the sonogram. You will like this YouTube
clip. You will like this joke. You are alive. *
We are surrounded by screens. Much of their impact is benign, but not all.
This summer I turned a number of times—every time I did, a chapter seemed to
speak specifically to something on my mind—to the calm and profound
“Hamlet’s BlackBerry” by William Powers. It is a book whose subject is how
to build a good life in the digital age.
Mr. Powers is not against the screens around us. We use digital devices “to
nurture relationships, to feed our emotional, social, and spiritual hungers,
to think creatively and express ourselves.” At their best they produce
moments that make life worth living. “If you’ve written an e-mail straight
from the heart, watched a video that you couldn’t stop thinking about, or
read an online essay that changed how you think about the world, you know
this is true.” But he has real reservations about what digital devices are
at their worst—an addiction to distraction, a way not of connecting but
In a chapter on Seneca, he finds timeless advice.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca was born at the time of Christ in Cordoba, Spain, an
outpost of the Roman Empire. His father was an official in the Roman
government, and Seneca followed his footsteps, becoming a Roman senator and,
later, advisor to Nero in the early (and more successful) days of his reign.
Seneca was a gifted manager and bureaucrat, but he is remembered today
because he was an inveterate letter writer, and his correspondence contained
thoughts, insights and convictions that revealed him to be a serious
Seneca thought the great job of philosophy was to offer people practical
advice on how to live more deeply and constructively. He came of age in a
time of tumult; the Rome he lived in was being transformed by a new
connectedness. An empire that stretched over millions of square miles was
being connected by new roads, a civil service, an extensive postal system.
And there was the rise of written communication. Writing, says Mr. Powers,
was a huge part of the everyday lives of literate Romans: “Postal deliveries
were important events, as urgently monitored as e-mail is today.” Seneca
himself wrote of his neighbors hurrying “from all directions” to meet the
latest mail boats from Egypt.
As written language began to drive things, Mr. Powers says, “the busy Roman
was constantly navigating crowds—not just the physical ones that filled the
streets and amphitheaters but the virtual crowd of the larger empire and the
torrents of information it produced.”
Seneca, at the center of it all, struggled with the information glut, and
with something else. He became acutely conscious of “the danger of allowing
others—not just friends and colleagues but the masses—to exert too much
influence on one’s thinking.” The more connected a society becomes, the
greater the chance an individual can become a creature, or even slave, of
“You ask me what you should consider it particularly important to avoid,”
one of Seneca’s letters begins. “My answer is this: a mass crowd. It is
something to which you cannot entrust yourself without risk. . . . I never
come back home with quite the same moral character I went out with;
something or other becomes unsettled where I had achieved internal peace.”
Seneca’s advice: Cultivate self-sufficiency and autonomy. Trust your own
instincts and ideas. You can thrive in the crowd if you are not dependent on
But this is not easy.
Everyone Seneca knew was busy and important, rushing about with what he
called “the restless energy of the hunted mind.” Some traveled to flee their
worries and burdens but found, as the old joke says, “No matter where I go,
there I am.” Stress is portable. Seneca: “The man who spends his time
choosing one resort after another in a hunt for peace and quiet, will in
every place he visits find something to prevent him from relaxing.”
Even in Seneca’s time, Mr. Powers notes, “the busy, crowd-induced state of
mind had gone mobile.” “Today we ask, ‘Does this hotel have Wi-Fi?’”
And there was the way people consumed information. The empire was awash in
texts. “Elite, literate Romans were discovering the great paradox of
information: the more of it that’s available, the harder it is to be truly
knowledgeable. It was impossible to process it all in a thoughtful way.”
People, Seneca observed, grazed and skimmed, absorbing information “in the
mere passing.” But it is better to know one great thinker deeply than dozens
Seneca, Mr. Powers observes, could have been writing in this century, “when
it’s hard to think of anything that isn’t done in ‘mere passing,’ and much
of life is beginning to resemble a plant that never puts down roots.”
There are two paths. One is to surrender, to allow the crowd to lead you
around by the nose and your experience to become ever more shallow. The
other is to step back and pare down. “Measure your life,” advises Seneca,
“it just does not have room for so much.”
Beware, in Mr. Powers’s words, “self-created bustle.” Stop checking your
inbox 10 times a day, or an hour. Once will do. Concentrate on your higher,
more serious purpose, enrich your own experience. Don’t be a slave to
Which is good mid-August wisdom for us all. Focus on central things, quiet
the mind, unplug a little, or a lot. And watch out for those crowds, both
the ones that cause BlackBerry jams and the ones that unsettle, that attempt
to stampede you into going along, or following. Step back, or aside. Think
what you think, not what they think. Everyone is trying to push. Don’t be
Author Info: Learn & discover the Divine prophecies with Rabbi Simcha Weinberg from the holy Torah, Jewish Law, Mysticism, Kabbalah and Jewish Prophecies. The Foundation Stone is the ultimate resource for Jews, Judaism, Jewish Education, Jewish Spirituality & the holy Torah.
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